Any parent will tell you kids can be depressing at times. A new study shows that raising them is a lifelong challenge to your mental health.
Not only do parents have significantly higher levels of depression than adults who do not have children, the problem gets worse when the kids move out.
"Parents have more to worry about than other people do—that's the bottom line," said Florida State University professor Robin Simon. "And that worry does not diminish over time. Parents worry about their kids' emotional, social, physical and economic well-being. We worry about how they're getting along in the world."
Simon knows from experience.
"I adore my kids," she said in a telephone interview. "I would do it over again. There are enormous emotional benefits. But I think [those benefits] get clouded by the emotional cost. We worry about our kids even when they're doing well."
The depressing results seem to be across the board in a study of 13,000 people. No type of parent reported less depression than non-parents, Simon said.
Some parents are more depressed than others, however. Parents of adult children, whether they live at home or not, and parents who do not have custody of their minor children have more symptoms of depression than those with young children all in the nest, regardless of whether they are biological children, step children or adopted.
Other research has shown there's a bright side to raising kids, too. One study of people with younger children found the parents have greater social networks and higher levels of self-confidence than non-parents.
"Young children in some ways are emotionally easier," Simon said. "Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems."
The research, announced today, was published in the American Sociological Association's Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Simon also found that married parents are less depressed than the unmarried. But, surprisingly, the effects of parenthood on depression were the same for men and women.
Part of the problem, Simon figures, is that Americans don't get as much help at parenting as they once did, or as is the case in other countries.
"We do it in relative isolation. The onus is on us," she said. "It's emotionally draining."
The primary data was pulled from a study done in the late 1980s. But Simon checked the results against a repeated version of the study from the mid-90s and reached the same conclusions, and she said there is little reason to expect a new survey would yield much different results.
"People should really think about whether they want to do this or not," Simon said of parenting.
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Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.